Welcome To Leith

A film about white supremacy, North Dakota, and cultural anthropology.

Before heading to the theater to see “Welcome To Leith”, I bought 2,000 rounds of .22 ammo at Dick’s Sporting Goods — .22 ammo is hard to come by these days, so you should get it when you can.

At the theater, I had to fight for my place in line with greater veracity than I did against youngsters for the Hobbit movies; the crowd was nearly all elderly and had very little concept of staying in line. One man, in particular, was pushy and by gosh, no one budges in front of me when I’ve waited 40 minutes. I say this, not because it is important in the scheme of larger things which the film would eventually talk about, but because I’m going to come back to that butt-in personality type.

When white supremacist Craig Cobb made his move to take over the town of Leith, North Dakota, my understanding of the situation was what I read in the newspaper and saw on television. I paid attention to Twitter, too, and watched the photos and updates of protests in Leith. Then Cobb and Kynan Dutton, his young protege, were arrested, the town seemed to have effectively gotten rid of him (at which point I wrote a blog post by no means supporting Cobb and his disgusting beliefs, but wary at the ease of which a citizen, no matter how revolting, could be legally forced out of town), and as far as I understood, that was it. Then Cobb was released from jail, and he and his young follower seemed to fade away and I did not hear much about either of them anymore. I was a slight acquaintance of one of the legal players involved, and watched with dismayed interest as it appeared things had fallen apart.

Then I saw the film.

Cobb, whose main weapon seems to be the internet which he uses to incite hate and violence as well as doxing people (revealing private photos, addresses, phone numbers, personal details online) may well have had legal reason, according to the courts, to be released from jail. But not only should he, now a felon, have been prohibited from possessing guns but he should also have gotten a bit of the Mitnik treatment, denying him access to the internet. (And I wonder why Anonymous doesn’t hack the shit out of white supremacist boards, or why Cobbs ISP doesn’t provide him with a spotty connection or a continual loop to the JDL homepage.) According to discussion after the movie, one of the first things he did after being released from jail was to post photos of young female relatives of a key player in the story onto white supremacist online boards. He’d already doxed, harassed, and nearly ruined the lives of a completely innocent neighbor in the town of Leith — that alone should have shown that his weapons of choice ought to have been considered the computer and internet.

Why was Cobb’s case dismissed?

A (perhaps) well-meaning citizen from a nearby town injected himself into the situation above and beyond his call as a newspaperman, and said something on a local television reporter’s camera that contradicted an earlier statement which, according to the prosecutor, hurt the case.

This is where that pushy personality type I experience in the theater lobby comes into play: I watched as this same photographer man put himself front and center before and after the film showing, taking photo after photo, and strangely taking over the Q & A that the film’s producers were supposed to conduct. Questions about the film were deftly transferred to talking about Cobb and company with this man talking about the YouTube videos he uploaded, a documentary he was working on, the website he created, and in every way possible, making it about what he was doing.

Whenever I see someone who relishes the spotlight that much (and it was clear that was the case), I am wary of any claims or protestations of pure innocence. I can respect that he’s working on collecting all information possible and posting on a web site to keep people informed, but a journalist should keep himself out of the story (unless he’s going for Gonzo, which truly would make him a legal liability in a case). It appears this newspaperman forgot the story wasn’t about him; he did not even live in Leith. When a reporter feels threatened out in the field, the story in the field is still the story, not the reporter’s experience in the field.

Cobb and his cohort did not just fade away, by the way. For whatever reason, part of Cobb’s parole requires him to stay in North Dakota (thanks, courts, for keeping him here), so he has settled near Antler, North Dakota and begun doing his thing again, trying to buy property and take over a North Dakota town. Dutton is in Underwood, North Dakota, looking for minorities to verbally threaten.

Little towns in North Dakota, of which I love and come from myself: wake up. Be aware of who you are selling your property to. Be aware that you have racists in your little community yourself who secretly support some of these extreme beliefs, even if they don’t align with the supremacists “creativity” religion (that’s right, these extremists aren’t “christians” but follow a different religion and have their own bible of sorts, so this one can’t be pinned on Christians whom people seem to currently love-to-hate). Be aware that you have people that don’t care who they sell property to as long as they make some money.

I want to add that the Southern Poverty Law Center is no angel. They frequently target Christian groups and call them “hate” groups, providing a little of their own saintly version of extremism to the mix. While I loathe what Cobb stands for (and he would be none to pleased to see the makeup of my diverse family), I don’t take pleasure in seeing Dutton’s car tires slashed and paint vandalized no matter how angry it makes me to hear the words that come out of his mouth. Where and when might my religious beliefs be considered hate, and I seen fit to be run out of town?

But back to that ammo I bought — I wondered what the reaction to the movie was, not just as a film but the portrayal of North Dakota. I imagine people in cities laughed and sniggered at the tiny town of Leith, a small North Dakota town so familiar to me and found repeatedly across the state, much like my hometown. I wondered if they made cracks about the gravel and dirt streets, the raw and empty landscape, the way we spoke, or the state or style of the homes. Or maybe made lofty judgments about the weaponry they saw, not only by Cobb, but also by the citizens of Leith (who weren’t toting .22’s, but .45’s). Did it reinforce their stereotypes of gun owners, rural life, and flyover country? Or were they able to see past that and see, as I did with great familiarity in their type of conversations and reactions, a small town of people who lived simply and cared about each other and were left to figure out a bad situation with little outside help?

In other words, what kind of context do they put to a place and a people where someone might run out and buy 2,000 rounds of ammo before heading out to an evening of dinner and an independant film? Does that question inspire fear and bring to mind terror, or does it seem like a valid, even if different, possible life?

“Welcome to Leith” is as much about cultural anthropology as it is a clash of ideology, both for the participants in the film, but also for those watching small town North Dakota roll across the screen.